Thursday, July 24, 2008

Supernatural Evil and Divine Providence: The Dark Knight Gets It Half-Right

The pure camp of the 1960’s Batman will forever be etched in our cultural memory. Even young adults, born decades afterwards still sigh and reminisce about the fight scene exclamations “EEE-Yow!” and “Urkk!” as if it were yesterday. The Batman franchise in the 1990’s did little to shake itself free from its enduring link to the sixties, releasing a series of sub-par movies culminating in the 1997 abomination Batman and Robin where George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger did their utmost to revive the campy feel. It’s this tired and caricatured franchise that Christopher Nolan took over in 2005 with Batman Begins. To many people’s surprise, he was able to shed the franchise’s cultural baggage, reviving it through an injection of tonal seriousness layered with psychological and philosophical complexity.

Hype leading up to The Dark Knight promised an even greater transformation for the Batman series. Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern called it “suffocating.” Most critics echoed that thought. “Psychotic,” “brilliantly nihilistic,” and “sinister epic” are merely a few of the synonymous phrases used to echo the same sentiment: Batman was once more going through a 360 degree transformation, one which put ticket buyers in a flurry of anticipation.

The Dark Knight does more than merely continue shedding the cartoonish camp. It is the first comic book franchise movie to transcend its genre and become arguably a masterpiece in its own right. Many critics have cited Heath Ledger’s iconic performance, Nolan’s stunning direction, and strikingly original writing as proof of The Dark Knight’s potential Oscar windfall. It accomplishes, however, something rarer than a mere coalescing of top acting, direction, and writing performances. It achieves a thematic coup not easily accomplished in mainstream cinema.

The Dark Knight takes us to the depths of spiritual evil without turning audiences away or trivializing the subject matter. Only a handful of movies can be said to have done this. Schindler’s List, The Passion of the Christ, and The Lives of Others are three in recent history that have taken audiences deeply into the mystery of evil without inducing us to upchuck our last meal or stay away from the theater. It’s much easier to go the route of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, a brutal Romanian movie about a woman who pursues an abortion, which goes beyond reasonable viewer endurance in an attempt to show the depth of evil (Schindler’s List nears that boundary, but without crossing it—the heroism of Oskar Schindler adds enough paradox to get the audience through the brutality).

It’s even easier to trivialize the reality with a superficial caricature. A majority of slasher, horror, and crime dramas give us images of unmitigated evil, but without the underlying spiritual reality. The villains are merely horrifying aberrations, humans with a couple of fuses blown in their minds, but are the stuff of nightmares, not reality. There’s no mystery here—just a matter a few crossed wires in the human mechanism. We needn’t be afraid of that evil: it’s rare, outlandish, and safely removed from our daily lives. Evil, then, is not part of our nature, but the equivalent of a computer crash, avoidable through consistent upkeep and an occasional therapy group. In other dramas, evil is purely exterior. In these movies, human nature isn’t the source of evil—only the objects of desire are. If only we would stop pursuing money or power, then our problems would simply disappear.

The Dark Knight derives its power from eschewing trivialization. The conflict between order and the maniacal nihilism of Ledger’s Joker is the real reason The Dark Knight transcends its genre. Nolan turns the Joker into a realistic, physical manifestation of Satan. He’s seemingly demonic, always ten steps ahead of his short-sighted human victims, wanting nothing but evil for its own sake, drawing human souls into its vacuum of nothingness. The Joker’s efforts are frightening, because he understands and manipulates fallen human nature. The potential for evil and nothingness is not safely removed from our lives but intimately a part of our being. The Joker explains that all we need is a little demonic push and gravity will pull us into chaos. The confrontation of the Joker’s evil catapults The Dark Knight from merely entertaining and well-made to genre transcendence.

While Christopher Nolan hits a chord in creating a truly terrifying manifestation of spiritual evil, he misses the mark in fully understanding how to confront it. Secularism limits his imagination. Courage, a little nifty technology, and refusal to capitulate principles are enough to bring the Joker down. The implication is that we have no use for Divine Providence: if we trust in our own strength and goodness, we can defeat evil. Best Picture Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men similarly shows the limits of secularism when understanding how to confront the horrifying spiritual reality of evil—resignation and passivity is the path presented.

Despite the shortcomings of Nolan’s worldview, he does our culture a great service. Nihilism is a real threat to us, when we tend not to believe it. We’d like to believe that we can form our own cosmopolitan truth without having to risk falling headlong into the void. We’d like to believe that order and truth will always keep us moored despite our infidelity towards it. When our culture considers nihilism, it sees the effeminate, posturing German nihilists of The Big Lebowski hissing hilariously “we believe in nahthing.” We owe Christopher Nolan our gratitude for reminding our culture that evil exists and it’s not trivial.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lilies of the Field

Sunday night, Martin and I watched the 1963 film "Lilies of the Field," for which Sidney Poitier won a Best Actor Oscar and numerous other awards. Martin had never seen it before; I had, countless times, as a child at my grandmother's house.

What a great film. It's a refreshingly simple, honest story, told without playing on emotion or artificially revving up drama, supported by wonderful performances. As I mentioned, Poitier won an Oscar for playing the itinerant construction worker Homer Smith; Lilia Skala was nominated for her supporting role as the Roman Catholic Mother Maria, who is trying to get Smith to build her and her sisters a chapel (or, in her thick German accent, a “schappel”). She gives the kind of performance that makes you forget she’s even an actress – you can’t imagine her as anyone other than her character. (The character, a severe German nun, could easily have been cartoonish – Smith even makes fun of her for this.) But she does a remarkably convincing job.

The film is notable, too, in the way that it treats Mother Maria’s faith. She trusts in God so completely that nearly every character thinks she’s a lunatic, but (without giving away too much) she’s vindicated. And it doesn’t have the cloying relativism of many faith-based films that tone down the spiritual in order to draw as many paying customers as possible. There are differences in people’s faiths, struggles within faith, but all are respected without the equivocation that tries to value any and every belief but ends up tearing every belief down (cf. Evan Almighty).

It’s such an honest story, too, without sacrificing good storytelling for absolute realism, or exacerbating vice to make people grittier or “more human.” It travels at a realistic pace – changes of heart take the time they would in real life, and hard work is depicted in a way that actually shows the hard work (no montages skipping right to the result).

The honesty continues in the depictions of the relationships between very different people, who are treated as people and not as peons of demographics. It’s often remembered as a very 'racial' film - Poitier's Oscar, for example, was the first awarded to a black man and the first given to a black person in a leading role. But the references to race are underplayed, rather than a focal point of the film. Smith, in teaching the sisters English, describes his skin as black like a stove or a record - just that, an observation, not an obsession. His accomplishment in the movie is a real achievement, valuable for the thing achieved and not because or despite the fact that's he black. In fact most characters never refer to or seem to notice his race at all. The result is a movie that's focused on humanity and not color. Watching the film as an adult, I noticed racial references that I never picked up on when I was younger. But that layer of the story never mattered, really: what I remembered was the very compelling story – a strong man being implored by a stronger Mother invoking the Strongest, God.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Magnificence of Wall-E: Pixar Simply Gets It

My childhood introduction to anthropomorphized robots occurred when I first witnessed R2-D2 sass an up-tight C-3PO and subsequently ignore the chorus of passive and ineffectual complaints from “The Professor” in Star Wars: A New Hope. Science fiction has never been my particular brand of nerdom, but the first three Star Wars movies greatly appealed to me as a youngster as they still do today. Unlike many of my generation, the principle appeal of Star Wars for me has never been its intricately layered galaxy, so well known for its technology, social makeup, Gnostic religion, and epic conflicts—the stuff of which has inspired legions of B-grade novels.

I had never reflected on this until George Lucas bludgeoned the world with his prequels and I witnessed the potential for an entertaining story and likeable, empathetic characters wash away in a flood of highly manipulated pixels. The Star Wars galaxy in the prequels was still complex and deeply detailed, but essentially soulless, a stunning story world with nothing in it. Even a lovable moppet like Jake Lloyd failed to evince the slightest amount of empathy in a movie where the cast droned their lines with less life than the droids they fought. Say what you will about Mark Hamill’s heroic struggle to act, but the first trilogy won over a generation, not because of the ingenuity of the Star Wars universe, but because it was an incredible story that forged bonds between the audience and the characters. It’s the human element that counts, not the spectacle; it’s no wonder that the prequels failed to revive the Star Wars frenzy or win over the younger generation. Eye candy, once consumed, is digested and never thought of again.

George Lucas embodies an odd paradox: As technology expanded his capacity for filmmaking, the more his ability to tell a story visually receded. When you spend enormous amounts of time and money building a precise model of Jar-Jar Binks’ eyebrow, it becomes a self-sufficient work of art in itself, and there is no needs to actually have that eyebrow express something of significance.

And finally, this brings me to the subject of Wall-E, Pixar’s latest masterpiece. Pixar has made movie after movie that has challenged and expanded the limits of animation. After seeing a preview of Wall-E, it became obvious that this movie was going to take animation to even greater heights than the stunning Ratatouille. Would this be the movie in which Pixar would finally succumb to the Lucas paradox? Would they toss aside what made them great? I witnessed quite the opposite. As technology has expanded Pixar’s range and ability, they have returned to the subtle visual power of the silent age, and created a story about anthropomorphized robots that captivate us and shed light on our humanity.

For director Andrew Stanton and his colleagues at Pixar, the story is central. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Stanton adamantly denied that he had created a powerful environmental message movie, which warned of the dehumanizing consequences of excessive consumerism. It simply didn’t factor into the equation at all. According to Stanton, the primary thing at Pixar will always be the story. Thank God for that.

The upshot for Christians is that Wall-E gets its message across powerfully to all ideological shades without trying. I am certainly not a global warming enthusiast. In fact, I have grown tremendously sensitive to the fervent religiosity and misanthropies of excessive environmentalism, and thus was not well disposed to accept a priggish lecture from an animated movie. Wall-E, however, did not prick any of those sensitivities. It made me reflect on how reactionary I had become on the real dangers of consumerism, spending more mental energy reacting against the pervasive Marxist agenda-driven environmentalism than reflecting on what Christian environmental stewardship might mean. Wall-E is an effective message movie because it doesn’t subsume story by becoming pedantic or lapse into extremism. In the end of Wall-E, it’s clear that our Earthly environment serves the human spirit, not the reverse.

The more the message looms over the movie like a threatening cloud, the less disposed we are to accept it. Pixar gets it: the story is and should always be the cornerstone of a film.